We all know our cats love to squeeze themselves into impossibly small boxes. The smaller the better it seems!

Now research by Smith et al (2021) has found that cats don’t just enjoy sitting in boxes but in “imaginary” boxes as well. Of course we do not know whether these cats actually imagined they were sitting inside a box, but the cats showed a preference for sitting inside a square, even if it was just an illusion.

How did they test this?

Cat owners were asked to test their cats at home, meaning the cats were not subjected to a test environment. This is a huge bonus because cats often do not perform well (or at all) in test environments due to stress or being unfamiliar with the environment and/or the researchers.

These cats did not know they were being tested, but their owners did. However, in order to avoid owners influencing their cat’s behaviour they were asked not to interact with their cats during the short tests. The owners were also instructed to wear sunglasses so they could not inadvertently guide their cat’s actions. Owners were also asked to record videos of their cats during these tests.

Roughly 500 owners signed up to participate, but only 30 cats completed the whole study. Whether the cats or owners gave up is unknown 😉

The participants received all the material and instructions from the researchers and were given “six randomized, counterbalanced daily stimuli to print out, prepare, and place on the floor in pairs”. There were three possible stimuli: an outline of a square, a Kanizsa illusion of a square using Pac-Man shapes or a control that had the Pac-Man shapes facing outward.

The control outline (left) and the cat sitting inside the Kanizsa illusion

The study found that cats chose to sit in the Kanizsa illusion of a square just as often as inside the actual outline of a square and sat in the control outline less frequently.

What does this mean?

As one of the researchers says, “[t]he major takeaways are that cats are susceptible to the Kanizsa illusion in a human-like way, and are most likely attracted to 2-D shapes for their contours (sides), rather than solely novelty on the floor”.

Why do cats like to sit where they fit?

Although more research is needed, I agree with Nicholas Dodman who wrote that “cats like to squeeze into small spaces where they feel much safer and more secure. Instead of being exposed to the clamor and possible danger of wide open spaces, cats prefer to huddle in smaller, more clearly delineated areas.”